In the early ’80s, when fledgling filmmaker Charlie Ahearn (at the behest of pal Fred “ Fab 5 Freddy ” Brathwaite) set out to capture on celluloid the exciting burgeoning music and street art culture of South Bronx teenagers, the result was Wild Style (1983) – the first, and still the greatest, hip-hop movie. Wild Style ‘s influence and legacy are, of course, well-documented – from the all the way authentic participation of true life aerosol artistes (Lee Quinones, Lady Pink) and hip-hop-before-it-was-known-as-hip-hop pioneers (Cold Crush, Fantastic 5, Busy Bee, Lisa Lee et al) to the eventual appearance of sampled bits of its dialog and soundtrack on albums-you-mighta-heard-of like Illmatic and It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back . Not bad for a little no-budget film that overcame significant production setbacks (pick up Ahearn’s essential making of book Wild Style The Sampler for details). Some 30+ years after the film’s theatrical release, there’s still much to marvel about Wild Style ‘s innovative resourcefulness – not the least of which was Ahearn’s foresight at the time to record and press up original breakbeats for the DJs to cut up during the movie’s live musical performances. This week those storied instrumental breakbeats – recorded by a trio of musicians headed up by Blondie’s Chris Stein , and overseen by Fab 5 Freddy – see their first official commercial release via Get On Down and Kay-Dee Records’ must-own, re-edited by Kenny Dope Wild Style Breakbeats 45 box set/book. To commemorate the moment, we took the opportunity to ask Charlie about some of the recordings that have most influenced him.
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1. Olatunji - Drums of Passion (Columbia, 1959)
Charlie Ahearn: My father loved playing records on his HiFi stereo cabinet speaker set and we were lucky he had eclectic musical tastes: Broadway musicals, Cuban, Calypso, jazz and pop; but Drums of Passion seared my sub-teenage imagination. I was a suburban kid visualizing native drummers in some African village drawing out the men and women to join in. The opening track, “Jin Go Lo Ba,” opens the record with such a deep and exhilarating flow of community and music being one. I later learned that the record was recorded in New York in Columbia studios, which now seems even more miraculous. I still listen to Drums of Passion and it opens me up in a new way at every listening.
2. West Side Story Broadway Cast Album (Columbia, 1957); Leonard Bernstein - West Side Story Original Soundtrack (Columbia, 1961)
Charlie Ahearn: My twin brother and I were totally fascinated by The Sharks and The Jets facing off on the streets of New York. We’d play “Krupke,” amused with the wise-assed lyrics, “My mother has a mustache/My father wears a dress… that’s why I’m a mess.” We’d repeat the end. Listen. Did someone say, “Dear officer Krupke, fuck you”? When the movie played in a Binghamton theater in 1961 our ten year old eyes were popping out at the finger snapping gang ballet basketball rumble and we were singing “When you’re a jet” the entire mile home snapping our fingers and leaping off fire hydrants in balletic gang style. I guess some of it rubbed off when I made Wild Style , with the Basketball scene, and just about everything else.
The Beatles - "Tomorrow Never Knows" (Capitol, 1966)
Charlie Ahearn: We had a big brother Joe, who we idolized in every way but who was always disappearing to go to school or off with his rock band. He left us his Revolver album. At fifteen I felt like the Beatles too were leaving us behind with this menacing hypnotic psychedelic anthem “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The opening drumbeat is insane then Lennon’s disembodied voice exhorting us to “turn off your mind, relax and float down stream, it is not dying” over speedy backwards tape loops of stuff like bats flying and effects. I would lie in the dark with my head against the speaker to “surrender to the void” as the song played on and on. Then I began making psychedelic poster art to go with the music. But this all came to an end when my hero brother died somewhere in a stupid drug accident and it all seemed over before it got started.
Spoonie Gee - "Spoonin' Rap" (Sound of New York, USA, 1979)
Charlie Ahearn: When I was working with Fred Brathwaite on Wild Style , I went to the Downstairs Record Shop (in the Times Square subway) and I snapped up this thing with a yellow label and it was one of the most played vinyls in my collection, with super spare instrumental and that tinny echo over Spoonie’s mesmerizing voice. His prison advice to “the new arrivals” was simple: “don’t drop the soap.” He set the pace for early emcees in the business, moving on to Enjoy, then Sugarhill and later Tuff City. In person Spoonie had such a cool powerful presence that I began to imagine what kind of role he might play in the movie. But he always seemed to be out of town touring when things got serious and then he seemed to just disappear around production time. I later heard he was working in a drug rehab program.
Funky Four Plus One More - "Rappin' & Rockin' the House" (Enjoy, 1979)
Charlie Ahearn: Also one of the first hip hop records, this embodies the fresh spirit coming out of the Bronx at that time which I wanted to capture in Wild Style . The voices are so clear and full of innocent enthusiasm. Like Hip-Hop the record never seems to stop. Remember that emcees were expected to rhyme for hours during a gig, which helped if there were five of them to pass the mic. The group were seduced by Sylvia to leave Bobby Robinson and Enjoy to join Sugarhill where they made “That’s The Joint.” But by the time we were preparing to shoot I was on the phone with Rodney and Jeff every night to hear each side of the story. KK and Rodney split Sugarhill and formed a duo Double Trouble and we had them tell that story in their Wild Style “Stoop Rap” and at the amphitheater with great feeling. But “Rappin and Rockin” remains a document of what it sounded like in 1980 in The Bronx if only without the shitty speakers.